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Inspiration, considered for centuries a divine gift, is a transcendental fact that emerges from places far from human consciousness. Artists are the people capable of using that moment of extreme lucidity to create elements that are beautiful to us and convey emotions and complex ideas in an aesthetically pleasant way.

Words By José M. Sainz-Maza

It is the umpteenth time that you visit that small art gallery that everyone has been talking about for two years in the city. A new exhibition by an artist little known at the moment but with a bright future in front of them – or that’s what you’ve heard – is inaugurated, and half of the region´s art lovers community has gathered there. You try to get to the gallery not too early, leave your coat in the wardrobe, grab a glass of something sparkling you are offered, and pass among the people who have already arrived to contemplate the artwork.

This time it is sculpture, a heterodox collection of bronze works. You read on a plaque that the series of metal figures that stand before you are related to the artist’s childhood. One must admit that they are beautiful sculptures, they convey something special, but in that succession of hollow shapes and unusual angles forged in bronze, you cannot see anything that takes you back to childhood. What has the artist done to transform their feelings and memories into those gorgeous models that are in front of you? Where is the secret? Is there one?

We have all asked ourselves these questions at some point. Not only when facing contemporary art as laymen, but also when attending an electronic music session in a club, visiting the Louvre or the Prado, listening to a Beethoven sonata or an impressionistic piece by Debussy, or reading a Murakami’s masterpiece. Each artist is different and has their own way of expressing their experiences and feelings in their work. However, this transformative capacity is common to all artists, it is in a way what defines and separates them from the rest of the people. Inspiration is that magical stimulus that allows them to channel their creativity and give birth to works of art that the rest of us can later admire. But where do they get it from?

“Poetry comes from a place that nobody controls, that nobody conquers, Leonard Cohen said in 2011.”

The Rebirth of Venus, Sheila Janet

Muses & Other Myths

If we look back, we will realize that art has always had something divine within it. We still don’t know what exactly those people who painted animals inside caves in the mountains more than 13,000 years ago wanted, but it seems quite clear that they saw a special relationship between drawings and reality. The Greeks later spoke of Muses, female deities daughters of Zeus, who used to come down to earth to whisper ideas into the ears of the artists and get them to create wonders. Traditionally, the Muses were related to bodies of water such as ponds, rivers, or lakes, and the representation of nature was of essential importance in that period. This connection would continue in later civilizations, such as the Roman one.

Is that inspirational scene like a ray of light on the artist familiar to you? Well, it is normal, since most ancient cultures used to relate artistic creation to the gods and supernatural phenomena. In many ones, such as that of pre-Christian Scandinavia, poets and singers were often respected as emissaries enlightened by some divinity, who thus expressed their voice through the artist’s mouth. This completes the circle between religion, art, and nature, which influenced the first centuries of creation among human societies. The ancient gods reigned over different meteorological phenomena or over the elements, and artists connected the material world with that deified natural environment.

What the Artists Feel 

“Poetry comes from a place that nobody controls, that nobody conquers,” Leonard Cohen said in 2011. We all admire those who are capable of creating, who can transform their emotions and shape them in a way that we can all enjoy. Discovering the origin of this gift has generated many debates over the years. While some 19th-century romantic authors still attributed a divine origin to inspiration, as a kind of mystical genius that reaches the creator, the idea that it has an inherent origin to the artist has long been accepted. It seems that it may be influenced by environmental factors, but not determined.

While the motives for creating a piece of art may have very different origins, the common element for all creators is their ability to produce distinctive, moving, and aesthetically pleasing works. To do this, some draw on their memories or their most intimate emotions, while others capture pieces of daily life or social struggles on paper, canvas, or stone. The difference between them and the rest of the people is that, while we can all have opinions about what is happening around us or be agitated by our feelings, they are capable of crafting something admirable with it. It is not just a matter of technique; they are artists, not artisans, and they carry inspiration within themselves.

Many artists throughout history have spoken of inspiration as a moment of emotional exaltation in an almost physical manner, as a sudden chill. It is a process that cannot be fully understood because it transcends the limits of our reason. Suddenly, loose ideas in our minds are intertwined in a certain way and everything makes sense, prompting us to act. After all, it is not a magical process, but it occurs unexpectedly and this causes a feeling of excitement and a deep emotional shudder. That moment of deep connection with oneself is directly related to the role of art in human history, it is something that elevates us above what is merely material, and it is easy to understand why in ancient times it was believed to be a divine act.

“It is a process that cannot be fully understood because it transcends the limits of our reason. Suddenly, loose ideas in our minds are intertwined in a certain way and everything makes sense, prompting us to act.”



The Origin of Inspiration

Once we have assumed that inspiration is something inherent in the person, does it mean that it can be controlled at will? Not really. It is carried within, yes, but cannot be summoned by the artist each time they wish to create something. Inspiration is mysterious and elusive, and as Cohen said, nothing controls it. The elements that trigger it could be found anywhere, even in the most unexpected corners, and one cannot know what the outcome will be once it hits. The artist is not just an empty vessel that produces his work when touched by a divine force or a singular event, but neither is inspired in a conscious way. All they can do is try to put themselves in situations where inspiration is more likely to appear.

This can be done in multiple ways. For some, the answer lies within their own being, and they seek inspiration through studying their own identity, analyzing themselves, fighting their inner demons, and seeking to decipher the secrets of their mind. For Freud, the artist’s creative process had a very close relationship with their psychic life, and their need to express themselves arises due to a certain repressed psychic material. In other words, the artist frees himself from his fears and exposes his most intimate desires through his work. Art would thus be a manifestation of the subconscious, and the more you study yourself, the more likely inspiration will appear.

For other artists, inspiration can be found in everyday life, in the simple moments that go unnoticed for others. As in the case of Hopper, many artists look at the casual moments of ordinary people to reflect on the meaning of life or analyze society and get us to look at ourselves in the mirror of their artwork. Inspiration may be in a couple drinking coffee on a terrace, or on an empty street on an autumn afternoon.


For most, the best way to get inspired is to breathe art, mingle with other creative people, study the life and work of the most famous artists in history, even if they don’t belong to the same discipline. If you are a painter, you must produce many paintings until you find your style. If you are a writer, you will have to fill thousands of pages to refine your technique. If you are a musician, you will need to rehearse for years until you can master music. As Pablo Picasso put it into words many years ago: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working”. Creating constantly and learning from the work of others is a good way to draw inspiration. Much of art arises from art itself.

Stone, Wood, Water, Metal: the Relation between Inspiration and Nature

Like Basque sculptors Basterretxea and Chillida, many artists have chosen to work with organic forms that blend in with the environment, with simple materials that connect with the essence of the earth. Nature is one of the main themes and a source of inspiration for many creators throughout history, whether in music, painting, sculpture, or architecture. For romantic artists, the natural environment was shrouded in mystery, dark, suggestive, and powerful. Perhaps the scene from “Wanderer above the sea of fog” the world-famous painting by Caspar David Friedrich, where a man stands before a wild place between mountains, will come to your mind. It is easy to understand that many find inspiration in the forests, seas, and lakes of the world and that many artists seek the peace and tranquillity of the countryside to focus on their artwork.

Chillida’s most famous work is called Peine del Viento XV, a sculptural ensemble with three steel figures embedded in the rocks of a cliff in San Sebastian, in northern Spain. The waves constantly whip the sculpture, and the wind whistles as it caresses the surface of the pieces. He once said about it: “This place is the origin of everything, the true author of the work. All I did was discover it. The wind, the sea, the rock, all of them intervene decisively. It is impossible to do a sculpture like this without taking into account the environment. It is something that I have done and that I have not done myself.”

This sentence again reflects the transcendental character of inspiration, as well as the connection between art and nature that ancient civilizations understood as an act of the gods. Art elevates us above the material world, beyond our consciousness, and bonds us in a special way to the universe. Artists are able to use inspiration to create things that make us dream, but the rest of us can also look for it. Whether it is to make a new recipe in the kitchen, combine clothes or find a creative solution to a problem at work, the keys are always the same: know yourself, stay in touch with your natural side, don´t stop learning and work hard to excel at what you love. At any point, the least expected day, inspiration will show up.

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